Home Alone

It was in Detroit that I first realized a career in lay ministry requires not only plenty of self-care, but other intrepid souls with whom to share the trip. My apartment building sat in the middle of the block on Detroit’s aging southwest side. I had been living there for two years, and whenever I would come home on a summer evening, the neighborhood children would stop their street games so that I could pull into the driveway.

Sometimes the girls came up as I was getting out of the car and asked if they could water my flowers. Three-year-old Olivia especially liked to lug the green plastic watering can from flower to flower, dousing the driveway, half the lawn, and her small red sneakers before drenching each flower and commanding it to be pretty and grow strong.

My small flat was decorated with paintings I had done and with folk art and souvenirs from my travels in Israel and Italy, Guatemala and Japan. With a master’s degree and a decent paying job in urban parish ministry, I could have afforded to live in the suburbs but chose to settle in southwest Detroit. I was highly idealistic at that point and had made a personal commitment to live with the poor: a gray and nebulous promise that felt stronger on good days, but pretty wobbly on bad ones. I often wondered how long I would “make it,” a little voice inside telling me I was “doing my time,” like a stint in the missions, but that I could leave anytime since there was an unwritten escape clause in my contract with myself.

I had kept aside enough money to call a moving van and pack for the suburbs on one day’s notice, if need be. I even had the first and last months’ rent, not something I was proud of or cared to admit to myself, especially when I thought about the future of the children playing on the street below my window. Life didn’t appear to have given them much of an escape clause.

The day I decided to leave was a day not unlike many others, except that it was so hot I remember the tar sticking to my shoes. The heat seemed to blister off the buildings, rippling across the concrete like waves from a blast furnace. Arriving home, I wanted to take a cold shower, but there was no water pressure. The kids had opened the nearby fire hydrant and were running through a frothy jet of cold water that pooled at the bottom of the street. I was half tempted to join them, but decided to fill the tub several inches with the slow trickle from the tap. I stepped into the bath and sponged myself down, tired and aching from an afternoon filled with problems only partially resolved.

The low point had been the hungry man and his four daughters-all under ten-who had come to the church seeking food. I had sent them next door for a meal at the soup kitchen while I tried to get in touch with the deacon. He was out securing the property of an elderly parishioner whose house had been broken into. The father, irritated because I couldn’t locate the deacon, turned irate when I couldn’t find the food pantry key. More to be rid of him than out of any sense of charity, I gave him twenty dollars from my purse, hoping he wouldn’t drink it all away, but realizing I was creating another problem-he would surely be back another day looking for more. Today, I didn’t care: I was scraping the bottom of my inner resources.

Just moments after stepping into the tub, I heard shots ring out. They were rapid, and they were nearby. I tensed and listened, but only silence followed. When I got downstairs, the street was again filled with children. My neighbors told me a teenage gang member had been shot in the legs in a drive-by shooting at the convenience store at the end of the block. It was the third time in six months that there had been a shooting at the store.

The owner, Joe, would ring up my purchases and pass them back through a Plexiglas turnstile, commenting on the recent lotto jackpot or asking about my job. More than once when I ran short of money-I didn’t carry much cash, and Joe wouldn’t accept checks-he would bag my groceries and tell me to pay next time. And despite the recent shootings, I hadn’t stopped using the store; I just offered a silent prayer every time I went there, hoping I would emerge safely without being accidentally gunned down, my groceries and blood spilled across the sidewalk.

Since moving to Detroit, prayer had become a well-honed part of my survival skills. Praying “pre-Detroit” had been a well-meaning exercise in attempting to achieve a feeling of union with God and the universe. But in my new neighborhood, prayer had become a daily litany of evils witnessed and offered to God-a God I was beginning to wonder about more and more.

One of my neighbors had seen the drive-by shooting that day as she was walking her elderly mother to the car. She and her husband desperately wanted to get out of the area. They had two small children and dreamed of a place in the suburbs where their kids could play on the front lawn without having to worry about stray bullets. I understood. Several months earlier, the couple behind me had been found murdered, their throats slashed in the night. It was small comfort that their grandson had done it, for the $7,000 he thought was hidden in the house. At the ATM I frequented, a woman who had just withdrawn $80 was shot in the face by a twelve-year-old. Then there was the empty lot near our church, littered with used syringes. And the elderly parishioner’s house where, a week before, four kids had broken in, looking for money-beating and burning her. It was this almost never-ending catalog, mounting week by week in intensity, that had me peering past the window shades at night, watching the police chopper comb the neighborhood, its eerie search light illuminating the alley ways-for what? I simply didn’t want to know. Yet, I wondered, When and where would I go if I did leave?

On that particular evening, I decided to drive to the suburbs to get a cup of ice coffee for four bucks, and to wander through trendy stores looking at things I didn’t want or need. Despair seemed to envelop me like a leaden jacket. Whereas shop owners in my neighborhood knew my name and made small talk, here the icy young people behind the counters were listless and seemed incapable of smiling. They, too, were preoccupied and were wondering where they were going.

I toyed with the idea of moving back to the suburbs, but knew I would miss the little miracles in my neighborhood: the pheasant that had nested in an abandoned lot nearby; and the wild flowers; and the morning glories, the size of pie plates, winding up the chain link fence next to the decaying school yard. And then there were the gorgeous vegetables, sold for a pittance in a vacant lot from the back of a VW van by a wonderful Mexican family. And the children, dancing and squealing in the spray of the fire hydrant on scorching, hazy days. Still, when I walked my little nieces and nephews though the well-manicured lawns of my sister’s suburban township, the miracle of plush lawns littered with toys that could be left out without fear of their being stolen rocked my bones.

Over my iced mocha latte, I perused a discarded newspaper and its headline about a forty-one-year-old woman who had blown up her house. She had been trying to commit suicide-not the first time, apparently-by gassing herself. A spark ignited and blew up her house instead, landing her relatively unscathed in a neighbor’s driveway. You could call it a miracle of sorts, but that evening I had to wonder about a God with such a sense of humor. At thirty-five, and with not even a goldfish to come home to, I didn’t need to dwell on the far side too long to understand why a well-fed woman in an affluent suburb in the prime of life might have wanted to end it all. But when I started to cry reading the article, I had to wonder why that was what had brought me to tears.

A few months before, I had discovered a lump on the side of my head. When the doctor concluded, with unsteady hands and voice, that it wasn’t a cyst, I got ready to die. My African-American co-workers prayed the tumor into becoming a benign mass of bone, latter confirmed by a cat scan, or so they claimed at a “Karen’s-been-healed” potluck over corn bread, greens, and smoked turkey wings. At the time, I was just happy not to be dying. Now, over my iced latte, I knew I wanted more out of life than simply not dying. I had seen too much death, poverty, and depression, and my heart was crying out for more to come home to than a goldfish. It was screaming out for joy.

The truth is, all the inner-city carnage hadn’t touched me at some level. I had never been at the same risk of being shot as my neighbors, although stray bullets have no loyalties. And my work made a difference, at least on some days. No, my tears were both more personal and more prosaic. What I realized that evening was that I was aching for a soul mate, and the fact sucked the breath out of me. I needed to find another place.

As a laywoman, I had come to understand the wisdom of religious sisters and brothers living in community. They form necessary islands of refuge, sanity, and nourishment in a sea of human need. As a single laywoman balancing a life of service among the needy, this lone-ranger type of ministry was no small feat. If I was to survive and to keep going, I needed to find another place, a different landscape-both interior and exterior.

We laypeople are our own map makers. It is our responsibility-to ourselves and to others-not only to navigate our novel terrain but to chart it. In my case, no one else was going to do it for me. I was not drawn to traditional religious life, and I was too old to join those just out of college who sign up for a year’s community service sponsored by a religious order. On the other hand, I was too young to bond with the graying priests and sisters who had served as the mainstay of Detroit’s urban parishes. I had to make my own way, and it would probably include many more compromises than I once would have felt comfortable with.

My first would be to move to Chicago, but on that particular evening, I didn’t know it yet. Years later, it would include finding a good man and soul mate. But at the time all I knew was that I had been in Detroit too long, and that it was time to leave.

When I arrived back at my apartment, Olivia ran up and asked if she could water my flowers. To one side of my apartment, my Hungarian landlord was pruning his acacia tree that, for one month each summer, shimmered with strands of paper-thin silver flowers. On the other side, my neighbor was burying scraps from supper in his garden, where he grew tomatoes the size of grapefruits. Off in the west, the sun was setting and the horizon was glowing, a throbbing fuchsia. It was unlike any sky I’d ever seen prior to coming to southwest Detroit, brilliant from the pollution, I was told. At times, I miss it still.

I finished watering the geraniums with Olivia and then went to sit alone in the sunset. I was happy in my decision to seek a new life. I tried not to dwell on the fact that I would be leaving my neighbors, people who had come to depend on my being there, an island in their lives. Across the street, my neighbor turned from pulling weeds in his bed of impatiens. He nodded toward my six window boxes, their blossoms bobbing in the evening breeze, and he smiled and waved. It seemed a blessing.

Published in the 2005-09-09 issue: 

Karen Rushen

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